Candy colored dreams descend down physically impossible angles, shapes shifting across plains of apparent non-reality while simultaneously simulating real life. Cartoon icons come to life, reduced to clichéd contradictions in a classic tale of good vs. very, very evil. Family is the focus, but not to the detriment of all that effervescent eye candy, and modern technology never trumps the skills inherent in masterful moviemaking. This is what the Wachowski Brothers have created with their homage to the classic ‘60s anime series. Speed Racer is that kind of a thesaurus level triumph. One needs an extended vocabulary to work out the descriptions necessary to explain this amazing movie.
Ever since he was a small boy, young Speed Racer idolized his brother Rex. When tragedy takes him away, the lad is determined to follow in his footsteps. Speed has always had driving in his blood, and as he matures, he becomes one of the sport’s best. Unfortunately, racing is controlled by corrupt corporate conglomerates with connections to mobsters and other shady characters. When Speed wins an important contest, he is approached by the owner of Royalton Industries, who makes him a sizable offer to join his team. Naturally, family comes first, and Speed would never leave his home crew - Mom, Pops, mechanic Sparky, little brother Spritle, or pet monkey Chim-Chim. He also has a thing for gal pal Trixie. Naturally, rejecting Royalton causes a rift which threatens to bring down the entire Racer team.
Forget all the curmudgeonly criticism that argues for this movie’s optical overload capacity - Speed Racer is a modern masterpiece, no two ways about it. Andy and Larry Wachowski have succeeded in creating a living, breathing comic book, complete with nods to psychedelic pen and ink designs, four panel editing, and overflowing visual pizzazz. Anyone who can’t see the brilliant blockbuster fun the brothers are having with this material has spent one too many hours staring at gloomy independent dramas about siblings struggling to deal with their dysfunctionality. This is filmmaking as fireworks, directorial innovation that, while not as media morphing as The Matrix, stands as the highest level of celluloid creativity. From races that routinely flaunt the rules of realism to a story that stresses the noble over the nasty, Speed Racer soars to the highest levels of movie magic.
It all begins with the actors, and the Wachowskis once again choose wisely. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon make an excellent Mom and Pops Racer, their wholesome genuineness beaming from every homespun word of wisdom they proffer. Equally endearing are Speed’s baby brother and his pet chimp. Spritle and Chim-Chim are characters clearly aimed at the PG-oriented audience this movie is geared toward, but unlike other examples of obvious demographic pandering, they play perfectly - and hilariously - to all ages. Christina Ricci’s raucous Trixie is like a hooker with a heart of gold, except here she’s selling self-esteem and girl power. Supporting players are well padded with sensational turns by Matthew Fox (as Racer X), Roger Allam (as main villain Mr. Royalton) and Benno Fürmann as the iconic Inspector Detector.
That just leaves Speed himself, and Emile Hirsch successfully sells what has to be the hardest role in a summer 2008 popcorn romp. Instead of being ironic and self-effacing, our hero is just that - a carbon copy cutout of what Joseph Campbell proudly proclaims. Hirsch has to balance determination with humility, never crossing over to the dark side to circumvent his friends and family. We also have to believe in Speed’s ability, and this is one actor who understands the greenscreen dynamic instinctually. The concentration and determination we read in Speed’s eyes is part of what made the cartoon so enduring, and it really rewards this movie as well.
Of course, the Wachowskis step up and deliver on the promise they provided throughout several trips through a virtual reality revolution. The races are ridiculous, giddy examples of vehicles as veiled gladiators. Drivers don’t merely careen around a course. Instead, they jump, dive, clash and crash, using secret gizmos and good old fashioned strategy to better their rivals. Some of the sequences are so jaw droppingly deranged that we wonder how the filmmakers made them viable. Imagine The Phantom Menace‘s pod race amped up by several thousand (and sans Lucas’ sloppy prequel predictability) and you’ve got a tiny inkling of what Speed Racer accomplishes, action-wise.
But the smaller moments here work equally well. When Racer X, determined to help Speed uncover the corruption in the sport, removes his mask to answer a movie long query, there is real emotion behind the reveal. Similarly, when the Racer family is inundated with calamity following Speed’s rejection of Royalton, we sense the heartache and pain. For all its whirlwind flash and CG stuntpulling, Speed Racer is really a movie about relationships and the ties that bind. Even as the Wachowskis pull another physics defying mindblower out of their fevered brains, we connect with the Racer clan and want to see them succeed at all costs.
Anyone predisposed to hate what the brothers are attempting clearly won’t cotton to the sugar spun splendor offered here (must be hard to hold all that Matrix sequel hate inside you, huh?). And there will be so called professionals who balk at all the primary color hoopla and prove just how sour their cultural disposition has become. Sometimes, a movie needs to be nothing more than a throwback to a simpler, more entertaining time. Speed Racer is that, and then some. It’s the added emotional element that turns it into something close to timeless.
// Notes from the Road
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